Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wilbur Mills: the electorate doesn't mind strippers


Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox. Photo from usnews.com

Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in 1909, and 30 years later he began serving as a Democratic congressman from Arkansas. In the short time between his schooling and political service, he worked as an attorney, bank manager, and judge. Mills became a member of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1942, and began serving as its chairman in 1958.

Mills had been serving in Congress for 35 years when the U.S. Park Police stopped his vehicle in Washington, D.C. in the early morning hours of October 7, 1974. Five people were in the vehicle, and what followed was a bizarre scuffle with police in which a woman dashed into the shallow waters of the nearby Tidal Basin. She was apprehended by police and briefly hospitalized.

Mills initially denied any involvement in the incident, but later admitted to being in the car and intoxicated (though not the vehicle's driver). His embarrassment deepened when the woman in the Tidal Basin, then 38-year-old Annabell Battistella, was found to be a stripper. Under the name Fanne Fox, Battistella was billed as the "Argentine Firecracker" at the Silver Slipper club. Sources told the Washington Post that Mills and Fox became companions, if ones that quarreled loudly at times, and that Mills spent "lavishly" at the club. Mills said that he suffered cuts and scratches on his face when he tried to prevent Fox from leaving the car.

Despite the incident's proximity to Election Day, Mills was returned to office by a 59 percent majority. However, Mills made the ill-advised decision to visit Fox at a burlesque house in Boston soon after the election. After being introduced by Fox, Mills joked with the audience, received a kiss on the cheek from Fox, and left the stage. Though he said the appearance was meant to dispel rumors that he was having an affair with Fox, Mills' public appearance with her in a strip joint did nothing to help his image. He resigned as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1975, went into treatment for alcoholism, and retired from Congress in 1977.

Mills worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C. after his resignation, raised funds for alcohol abuse programs, and died in 1992. His name is prominently featured in several Arkansas locales, including an alcohol treatment center, a social sciences building at his alma mater of Hendrix College, and a freeway.

Sources: Notable Names Database, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, "Pre-Dawn Escapade; Congressman Mills Denies Part in Incident" in the Evening Independent on Oct. 9 1974, "Mills Admits Being Present During Tidal Basin Scuffle" in the Washington Post on Oct. 11 1974, "The Fall of Chairman Wilbur Mills" in Time Magazine on Dec. 16 1974

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